IT Simplicity: A ‘Move in the Opposite Direction’

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Nov 18, 2004
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By Bill Bittner

In a recent survey, Economist Magazine portrayed the “Next Big Wave” of technology, not as RFID or some other radically new hardware capability, but rather the simplification
of how we deal with technology we already have. They quote various estimates of what it takes for businesses to deal with the complexity of their technology.

IT budgets have completely reversed themselves over the past 15 years to the point where 75 percent is spent on fixing and maintaining vs. implementing new solutions. The IT
industry has shrunk from 35 percent of America’s S&P 500 index in early 2000 to about 15 percent today. It seems that users are more interested in making better use of what
they have than trying something new.

Some of the current concern comes from the harsh realization that businesses have not gotten everything they expected out of what they have already spent. Economist quotes
the Standish Group research which shows over 66 percent of IT projects failing to fully meet their expectations. Users are not fully utilizing the features of many of the applications
they already own. We all know this from our personal experience with VCR’s, cell phones, and home PC’s.

Part of the problem has been the movement of IT from the backroom of the business to the main floor. It used to be that the only thing the user saw were the input forms they
submitted and the output reports they received. Now users are directly engaged with the IT infrastructure and suffer right along with the technologists when something goes haywire.

Gartner Group estimates that the average business loses 175 hours a year due to down time on their network. Even when the network is operating, users must deal with various applications
whose screens do not all work the same way and that use different and even conflicting terminology to describe the same information.

This often occurs when technicians have linked independent applications through layers of middleware. Short of adding business functionality, the middleware merely translates
messages going between software applications developed to different standards. The result is a conglomerate of applications have overlapping functionality (“You have to put it
in here … and in here”) or missed requirements that have fallen between the cracks (“Don’t throw away that piece of paper”).

Until now, the software vendors’ answer has been a “new and improved” version that only serves to increase the complexity by tacking on more “feature and function,” much of which
may never get used.

The Economist survey likens today’s IT to many other breakthrough technologies that evolved from being the luxuries of the few to universal availability. Early users of
electrical power had their own generators. The first users of automobiles had to carry their own gasoline and do their own repairs. Even indoor plumbing has evolved from private
wells and septic tanks to central sewer and water utilities. Will the same thing happen to IT? Is the Internet the “Information Infrastructure” that will enable many companies
to forgo the complexity of maintaining their own IT department and enable them to connect to the vast “information highway” to receive their IT services?

Much of the Economist survey talks again about Web Services, which we discussed before
(See RW – “Web Services: Online Dating for Business Aps,” 10/27/04)
, which addresses the technical complexity but never addresses the difficulty of integrating independent
applications at the user level.

Moderator’s Comment: To accomplish consistent user interfaces, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers must all
agree on the processes and responsibilities they share for getting the most out of the retail supply chain. Are they up to it?

I believe we are, and in fact have begun, some of the initiatives that will get us there. Albert Einstein said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger,
more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

Is it time to stop looking for another silver bullet and, instead, come up with an industry description of what is needed? Maybe by streamlining and reducing
the complexity of processes and applications we will see them better utilized. I really believe this can be accomplished, but it must be an industry initiative, not one from the
hardware and application vendors who benefit most from keeping it complicated.

The National Retail Federation has begun much of the work with their ARTS initiative. Business leaders need to work with FMI and GMA to really validate
the ARTS Data and Process Models, then endorse them. “ARTS certified” solutions would have common user interfaces and terminology, and all those pieces of paper would finally
be thrown away. After all, all you have to do to succeed in retail is buy low and sell for a profit, right?

Bill Bittner – Moderator

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